Lady in fintech

Mariam Ogunbambi, Head of Card Operations at Starling

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ElevatHer is honoured to interview her today.

Mariam Ogunbambi is Head of Card Operations at Starling. Prior to this, as Programme Manager, she was responsible for delivering the integration between Starling’s own systems and the wider banking, payments and finance landscape, working with everyone from new fintech start-ups to traditional central banks.

Thanks Mariam for joining us today!

Please tell us a little about yourself/ your journey from graduate to now.

I’ve been at Starling Bank for almost four years now, and I’ve really been able to see the bank grow from strength to strength. I didn’t always see myself working in banking but I knew I wanted to be in technology, and with Starling I get the best of both worlds. I am currently Head of Card Payments, but my journey to this point has involved a variety of roles and experiences.

Before Starling, I was a consultant. I studied business and marketing at university and then did a Masters in Global Business Analysis which led me to the graduate scheme at IBM. I spent three years there, and worked on some very interesting and thought-provoking client projects, including the building of a new bank called Williams and Glyn for RBS.

I first heard of Starling back in 2015 , when I left IBM to join a smaller management consultancy firm and I actually began my working relationship as a consultant - helping to get the bank into a fully functional position, from helping the team obtain a banking license to on-boarding key suppliers.

I then made the move to a permanent role in 2016 because I truly believed in the mission of the bank. I’ve done a range of things since then - programme management (managing integrations with core payments schemes and third party systems), operational risk, and now operations and card payments. I would really say it has taught me so much about being open and willing to try new things and to test myself.

What are some of your challenges/ experiences of glass ceiling you faced and how did you manoeuvre your way around it?

During my graduate scheme I was very aware that I had joined one of the top tech firms in the world. But I was also acutely aware that I was one of, if not the only, woman in the room most of the time - and certainly the only black woman. At least to me, it didn't feel like there was a whole lot of diversity.

I think the main challenge was ensuring your voice was heard, and that you were able to break through the noise and be a counter to the ‘boys’ club’ mentality. For me, I strived to not let it define my actions or more often my reactions. I focused instead on developing my own capabilities and looked for guidance and feedback from colleagues I respected. This allowed me to speak up more, and voice my opinions confidently. But I do think that confidence is always a ‘work in progress,’ and that you have to keep developing yourself to nurture boldness and a belief in your abilities. I know I am still working on it. Michelle Obama also said “you can’t afford to wait for the world to be equal to start feeling seen,” so sometimes overcoming these challenges really starts in the mind.

I was also open about the types of projects I worked on, and didn’t allow myself to get boxed in. I would like to say I took calculated risks, and I continue to do this at Starling. Even if I am not an expert in an area I always try and say yes to opportunities because I want to learn and grow my skill-set. I think this mindset has served me well - you have to be willing to try new things and learn on the job.

What are you most excited about in the industry?

In all honesty, I’m genuinely excited by what Starling is doing to fundamentally change banking. I think the more we continue to disrupt the industry the better the financial products and services will be for customers - across the board - it’s a race to the top.

I’m also very proud of how we have been helping our customers during the pandemic. Our Connected Card, which was released during the height of lockdown, was there to help vulnerable customers who needed a way to provide their helpers or carers a payment card for basic necessities. We’ve also lent out more than £1 billion via the Government lending schemes so that SMEs can get back on their feet during this incredibly difficult time.

Looking to the future, there are some really thrilling things in the pipeline for Starling - including improvements to the app with new features coming out every week, the expansion of our payments capabilities, more multi currency accounts (to add to our Euro and USD offerings) and much more. We think we are market-leading and the industry will need to switch gears to keep up!

What is Starling doing in the D&I space?

Improving diversity and inclusion at Starling is incredibly important. The last few months have shown us that honest conversations about representation are a necessity and should not be short-lived. They need to continue to be at the forefront of our minds.

Starling has long been an advocate and champion of women in business, finance and tech. As a digital bank, we operate at the axis of two traditionally male-dominated professions, banking and technology. We knew there was the opportunity to become the blueprint for gender equality in the fintech world. 54% of our Executive Team are women and we are signed up to HM Treasury’s Women in Finance Charter - meaning we are committed to supporting the progression of women into senior roles and to reporting on our progress.

There are also great initiatives led by members of Starling’s LGBTQ+ community - there is a Slack group called #BendTheBank which was formalised as a network in August 2019. It is a place for idea-sharing and openness about how things can be better.

I am encouraged by Anne’s (our CEO) recent comments on the need to find new pathways to promote Black talent internally and to attract new talent. And this was also put into action recently, where I chaired a number of focus groups at Starling, supported by our Chief People Officer, to garner and understand the thoughts and experiences of the Black community, so that better policies can be formed. I think it’s critical that conversations take place in safe and honest environments, and that awareness is raised alongside the opportunities to help people educate themselves on what a truly inclusive community looks like.

How did you make sure you stood out of the crowd?

I wouldn’t say I was necessarily trying to stand out from the crowd. I work hard and take pleasure in doing a job well. I also take calculated risks and try to be brave with my choices and decisions when the time is right (and knowing when the time is right is often the risk!)

There is only so much an individual can do - it’s also very much about those around you. I think it’s important to ask for help when you need it and to ask questions if you’re unsure of something. Being confident to ask for help is a strength, not a weakness. I’ve been lucky enough at Starling to have the support from Senior executives, and have been given the opportunities to show my abilities.

What was the most important thing that helped you land your current role?

I have a two-part answer to this question. Firstly, I had to make sure Starling was right for me. I had just started working on a three months consultancy project when the role at Starling was offered to me. I didn’t want to leave a job unfinished or walk-out half-way through, but then John Mountain, Starling’s CIO, called me and we met for coffee. He reminded me that there was a reason for me to join Starling: that I could make a real impact, not just in a job but in an industry. I also wanted to be a part of a company that was doing something positive in an industry that had traditionally only cared about the bottom-line.

Once I had made that decision, the second-part came into play. My experience at Starling has been a journey, and I had to embark on it with an open-mind. I knew my skill-set would be useful, but I wanted to employ it in as many ways as possible. I have had the pleasure of working with very intelligent and passionate people that I have learned from and been challenged by - being receptive to that helped me move from Project to Risk to Operations relatively smoothly (or as smoothly as you can!) I didn’t allow fear to prevent me from trying new things, and when the opportunity to take on this role was presented to me I was able to embrace the process.

What advice would you offer to others interested in doing a similar role as yourself?

Be confident and comfortable doing things outside your comfort zone. If you can do something with your eyes closed, then it’s time to challenge yourself with a new element or project. Be ready and prepared for that, it’s the best way to learn.

Also be intentional about your own self development. Don’t expect things to be handed to you, and go out of your way to find real backing, whether that’s from informal or formal mentors, sponsors or just colleagues you respect and trust. It’s also a really helpful way to keep learning, in my role I have to keep refreshing and adding to my knowledge.

Lastly, don’t be intimidated by a role. There are so many young talented women out there who look at tech or finance roles and don’t think they can make a success of it. Just know that you can do it and you are capable.

What tips would you offer those looking to climb the ladder?

I would say keep learning and ask for help when you need it - but have confidence in your ability and try and avoid self-doubt. It has helped me in the past to focus on the positives, thinking that ‘I can do that’ rather than ‘what if I fail?’ Try and have a glass half full, not half empty attitude.

One of my mentors recently reminded me that sometimes it is not always about ‘climbing up’ but lateral moves are good and help to build your professional knowledge and experience, which I think is something people tend to forget.

This is a key way you can figure out what you want to achieve in your career and map out an achievable path to it.

How do you make sure you have a good balance of home and work life, especially during COVID-19?

I have been reading a lot, I find it’s a really good escape. I was also doing a course outside of work, so I had to shut off so to speak. I have also recently taken up gardening, which I never thought was something I would do, but there are so many ways to develop yourself outside of work!

What's next for your career?

Does anyone really know what’s next? But for me, it is still very much at Starling. I will continue building on what we are doing to help change banking for the better. There is still so much we can achieve, and I am in the very privileged position to help support new products and services and ensure we can scale. My career is ready for what’s next for Starling.

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